This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

March 27, 2002 - The Community Reference Question

Sometimes, you come to the library with a question.

It isn't always clear, though. Sometimes, where the question starts isn't where it ends. For instance, you might begin by asking, "Do you have anything on the Civil War?"

We say, "Yes! Heaps! Can you tell me a little more about what you're looking for? Are you trying to find out how it started? Are you curious about some of the key military leaders?"

By degrees, by fits and starts and stages, the real question finally comes out. You aren't after general information about the Civil War. You want to know the maiden name of the wife of Jefferson Davis, the provisional President of the Confederacy.

From there, it's really pretty simple. (And in case you're wondering, the answer is Sarah Taylor, daughter of Davis's commander, Colonel Zachary Taylor, who later became a general and President of the United States.)

This process -- going from the first question to the real question -- is known to librarians as "the reference interview." Our librarians are pretty good at it. When someone comes to the library (or calls, or even emails us), the odds are very good that we'll be able to track down the answer to their question, at least once we know what the question really is.

But just suppose that you never got around to asking us. Then, one day, we call YOU. "I was talking to a friend of yours," says the librarian. "He says you wanted to know the maiden name of Jeff Davis's wife. We've got that for you. It was ..."

In other words, suppose we answered the question you never got around to asking us?

Sometimes, whole communities have questions. Just as with our patrons, the questions aren't always clear. They start off in one direction, but come to rest somewhere else entirely.

Suppose we applied our reference interview expertise to those problems? Suppose we tried to answer community reference questions?

This isn't to say that the library will BE the answer to the question. For instance, the community question might be, "How do we manage our water resources intelligently?"

The answer might be a whole host of strategies. The change of zoning laws to prohibit Kentucky bluegrass. Dams. Special additives to the lawn that soak up moisture, and release it slowly over a period of months.

That doesn't mean that the library will sell desert grass seed, build a dam, or sponsor scientific breakthroughs.

But we could summarize our research for publication in local newspapers. We could buy more books and videos about desert seeds. We could bring in speakers to talk about successful dam projects. We could plant demonstration library lawns.

It could be, from now on, that you'll find more librarians sitting in on your local meetings. Why are we there? Because it's our job. We're listening. We're asking questions. We're trying to help our communities find some answers.

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

March 20, 2002 - A Continuing Education

I am not the man in the picture. Jamie LaRue is out of town and offered me his column space this week. I accepted happily seeing it as an opportunity to share an insider’s glimpse into the library world.

Nine months ago something life altering happened to me. I can hear my daughters’ voices, ringing in the momma conscience in my ear, “Oh! Yuck! Mom, don’t write about that in the newspaper.” Girls, rest at ease, my life-altering episode has nothing to do with procreation, but it does have a great deal to do with growth. Mine. Nine months ago I started a new job as the Executive Assistant to the Director of the Douglas Public Library District, a period of time I refer to as “The education of Patti.”

My education — the learning of the library — has been both broad and minute. In the broad sense, I have had the pleasure of working with the Library District Board of Trustees. This group of seven, volunteer citizens governs the District. I can personally attest to their great depth of community knowledge and business sense. There is also an influx of “new blood” and vision that blends remarkably with the “old blood” of historical perspective and experience. They give of their time, their knowledge, and their expertise because they have a great sense of community and of the importance of libraries in that community.

One of my first jobs with the District has been a review of the Bylaws and Policies. I have had the opportunity, rare in a new position, to see what went before me. In reviewing the Board minutes for the last twelve years I gained a respect for what the District has accomplished and how responsibly they have accomplished it. In a decade of massive county growth the District has been visionary in its services, cutting edge in its approach and fiscally sound.

Honing my education more, I have started to learn about the day-to-day operations of the library. When I was first hired I excitedly told a young friend that I was looking forward to the new challenge. She looked at me with that “duh?” look only teenagers can perfect and said, “What’s so hard about checking out books!” I explained that I wouldn’t be checking out books. (They didn’t trust me enough yet to let me do
that!) Since that conversation I have been let loose on the patrons of the Philip S. Miller Library and I am happy to be able to say I have successfully checked out a few books. I am a quick study, but I am here to testify that being a librarian is a job of great complex, detail, knowledge and professionalism.

At least monthly I tell my boss, Jamie LaRue (You wondered when he came into the picture, didn’t you?) that I still love this job. Everyday I get to do a job where I am encouraged to learn, be inventive, be successful, be respected and to show respect, be in awe of what others accomplish and occasionally to allow some awe to come my way. I am learning about libraries on a whole greater level than I knew as a
book-borrowing patron. I am learning that the Douglas Public Library District is an organization that I am proud to be part of. This is not a statement you can always make about an organization once you get to know it.

So what have I learned? I have learned that this job will be a continuing education. I will never come full term. I like that.

Patti Owen-DeLay is the Executive Assistant to the Director of the Douglas Public Library District.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

March 13, 2002 - The Continuing Evolution of Computers in Libraries

I entered the library field just as computers were really taking off. It was exciting.

Before computers, staff used to spent a staggering number of hours each day filing. We typed and filed the patron cards. Every book had a card. When people checked them out, we filed the cards by date.

And then, when an item went overdue, we pulled the item card and the patron card, typed up an overdue notice, and sent it out.

We also spent hours and hours filing index cards for the collection -- as many as five or six cards per book. (Author, title, series, and for non-fiction, two or three subject headings.)

This first wave of library automation (back in the 70's, way before the rest of America caught on) saved money for libraries by eliminating a host of these essentially very low level, clerical tasks. But over time we began to add new positions, jobs that were a whole lot more interesting, and even paid better.

The second wave of automation mostly concerned public offerings. After the online catalog came various computer databases: first on CD-ROM, then the World Wide Web. Libraries became public Internet caf├ęs.

In this phase, library costs rose, as we supported an ever growing infrastructure of hardware, telecommunication links, database subscriptions, and technical staff.

I used to think that the "third wave" of automation would be just more of the same. We'd get better at managing the resources, refining our policies, and so on. But now I think the third wave means another deep rethinking of how we do business, another cycle into the back room of library operations.

What was the real lesson of automation? Almost ANY repetitive process can be automated. But there are still many library functions that require multiple steps, many hands touching the same item or activity.

Here are just a few examples:

Reading program statistics. Right now, we have library patrons fill out reading program registrations. At the end, we count up all the cards to figure out how many signed up, and how many finished. But there's nothing on these cards that isn't already in the patron database. By adding just one more data element to the patron record, all of our statistics gathering would be automatic -- and would also offer many new kinds of information. For instance, do reading program registrants read
more books than other people? In short, is the program successful?

Meeting room reservations. Our meeting rooms get used a lot. To reserve one, you call us, and we look in a paper calendar. If the date and time is free, we pencil in all the usual information: who, when, contact information. If this registration process happened online, we could build automatic press releases, contact databases, and other useful community information.

Staff scheduling. Staff schedules in our district are almost fiendishly complex. We're beta testing a home grown system that has the potential to give us back many hours of supervisor time.

The order, receipt and processing of library materials. It's possible, right now, to place an order for library materials, and have an on order record created and inserted in our database at the same time. When the item was about to be shipped, it wouldn't be hard to have the sending computer overwrite our on order record with the full-blown description. Right now, we treat these as separate processes, again involving all kinds of duplicated effort.
Librarians, who have long been early adopters of technology, still have to keep up with the times, using it not only to offer new services and greater patron convenience, but also to keep the belt tight on public expenditures.

The third wave is cresting.

Wednesday, March 6, 2002

March 6, 2002 - Brave New World of Outliner Software

Between 1982 and 1991, there flowered a golden age of software. This software was called, variously, "outline processors," or "outline editors," or, more recently, just "outliners."

Such programs have always fascinated me. Recently, I spent some twenty hours or so seeing what was still out there, and writing up my thoughts about what I found.

When I was done, I had two articles. But I found myself unwilling to try to chase down publishers for them. Frankly, I doubted whether anybody else would be much interested. So I stuck them on my personal website.

That's when things got interesting.

Within about four hours, I got email from folks all over the planet. It seems that a lot of people are still interested in outliners. But the product has taken a turn.

For instance, there's one outliner, still in development, called JOE, based on Java. It runs through your web browser.

Then I got email from the chief scientist at www.eastgate.com. He had just released a program called Tinderbox, written for the Mac (though coming soon for Windows and OS X). The software did include an outliner, but also more graphic, "mind-mapping" modes.

Let me say that there are a lot of things I still haven't figured out about the program, although I have downloaded the free demo.

Tinderbox works like sticky notes on steroids. You can create "notes" about anything you like: books you're reading, your diary, web snippets and addresses.

When you're done, Tinderbox can run around and categorize everything for you. So when you start looking for something on a particular word, the software fetches all your notes on a similar topic. It will even prowl the World Wide Web looking for new notes that match some prespecified URL.

But there's more.

Based on "attributes" you assign to your notes, it appears that Tinderbox can also use them to automatically or dynamically update your web site -- not just loading content, but formatting it for you, too.

Tinderbox isn't the only product that does such things. Based on some of the research I've been doing, it's clear that Internet programming has taken a big jump forward.

This set off a pretty intense day of intellectual stimulation. I got another prod when I met with our folks in the Local History Collection about adding another 750 historic photographs to our website. We work with a company that has also helped manage some of the big digital images for Disney.

Some of the things this company can make happen, automatically, are just astonishing. Not only that, the implications are staggering for all kinds of library procedures.

There was a time when automation saved libraries money. For the past 10 years, it has COST us money. (It has also, of course, allowed us to offer new services.) But I begin to see a way to make it more cost-effective.

Next week, I'll talk about how some of these new techniques could completely transform the way we do business, both for libraries, and the people who use them.

Meanwhile, if you have some interest in finding new/old ways to think better, I do recommend www.outliners.com, and the web page for Tinderbox at www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/.

There's a whole new world out there.